Tag Archives: oral tradition

LSS: Getting ready for St. Patrick’s Day

My grandfather had the gift of an Irish storyteller, even though he was born in the middle of the red dirt of Mississippi. When I was a child, listening to his stories was as nice as buttered biscuits and syrup. I realize now that many of the stories I loved were quite gruesome, but I suppose such is the case with most childhood favorites.
Think Little Red Riding Hood “the better to eat you with, my pretty.” Think Hansel and Gretel — two young children threatened by a cannibalistic hag who lives in a house made of cake and confectionery deep in a forest.
You get the picture.
The stories my grandfather told me were equally grisly. I had two favorites. The first was about the time when he was a teen and he and his dad were walking home after a day of working in the woods. My great-grandfather was walking with a hoe slung over his shoulder. A storm was brewing. A limb broke off a tree and fell. It hit my great-grandfather — which caused the hoe to cut a deep gash in his head.
My grandfather rode a horse to town to get the doctor. When he got to the doctor’s house, the doctor was having dinner and wouldn’t come right away. By the time, the pair made it back, my great-grandfather was dying.
He died singing “Pass me not, Oh Gentle Savior.”
As a kid, I could imagine the furious seven-mile ride into town, the frustration of waiting for the doctor and the grief of a beloved father’s death.
My other favorite was equally grim.
My grandfather would start it out, “Ireland, that’s where my people come from.”
He would then go on to tell me the story was about two brothers competing for the kingdom of Ireland. Their father, try as he might, could not decide which of the two brothers should become king. To settle the dispute, the father decided his two sons would have a boat race. The first brother whose hand touched the shore would become king.
And they were off.
It was nip and tuck.
Just as one boat was about to touch shore, the brother in the other boat chopped his hand off and threw it on shore to win the title of king.
He paid a price, but he won fair and square.
As a kid, the story raised loads of questions. Did the one brother plan his shocking master move in advance? At what point did he decide he was far enough behind that it was time to take drastic action? How long does it take to cut a hand off? Did he cut it himself? If so, how did he then have the presence of mind to throw it with the other hand? Was the father angry at the outcome?
My grandfather never entertained such questions. Hence, my mind was left to wonder. Once the story was done, he would go on to explain that our family was descendents of the one-handed brother who became king.
I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but he told the story with great conviction.
Skip 40 years.
About two years ago, I was reading a book set in Scotland. The protagonist was alarmed when a repairman with a tattoo came to her home. She described the tattoo as the Red Hand of Ulster and spoke of Irish extremists.
I’m not proud to admit that I didn’t know there even was a symbol called the Red Hand of Ulster. I didn’t know what it had come to represent to many, but I instantly remembered my grandfather’s story and knew there could be a connection.
I did some research and learned that my instinct was right. The hand represents the same bloody hand of my grandfather’s story. The power of the oral tradition is strong. He had heard the story throughout his youth from his grandparents.
Almost verbatim, the story is reprinted time and again on the Internet now.
Sadly, the Red Hand of Ulster is suffering an image problem these days — even though it’s one of the oldest symbols of Ireland, with variations ranging from Spanish and Viking brothers racing for Ireland itself to O’Neill brothers racing for the Kingdom of Ulster (a province in Northern Ireland). Yet, these days the image is caught in a tug-of-war between the Gaelic traditionalists who recognize its connection to all of Ireland and loyalists, predominantly of Northern Ireland, who use the symbol as part of their ethnic battle cry to create divisiveness.
As we approach St. Patrick’s Day in a few weeks, here’s a hope and a prayer that you carry on the tradition of oral history. The Irish certainly didn’t corner the market on telling a good tale.